Sydney Nathans is Professor Emeritus of History at Duke University.
The book explores the story of Mary Walker, an enslaved woman from North Carolina who in 1848 fled the Bennehan/Cameron family for refuge in the North—first in Philadelphia, then to Boston─and spent the next seventeen years trying to recover her family. Mary Walker was not reunited with her family until the end of the Civil War. What was it like for a mother to flee slavery, leaving her children behind? This story is anchored in two extraordinary collections of letters and diaries, that of her former North Carolina slaveholders and that of the northern family ─ Susan and Peter Lesley ─ who protected and employed her. Sydney Nathans’ sensitive and penetrating narrative reveals Mary Walker’s remarkable persistence as well as the sustained collaboration of black and white abolitionists who assisted her. Mary Walker and the Lesleys ventured half a dozen attempts at liberation, from ransom to ruse to rescue, until the end of the Civil War reunited Mary Walker with her son and daughter. The book is based in part on letters at the APS, where Peter Lesley was Secretary of the American Philosophical Society in the 1850s and 1860s, and on thousands of letters and diaries in the possession of Lesley descendants.
Unlike her more famous counterparts — Harriet Tubman, Harriet Jacobs, and Sojourner Truth — who wrote their own narratives and whose public defiance made them heroines, Mary Walker’s efforts were wrenching and private. Her odyssey was more representative of women refugees from bondage who labored secretly and behind the scenes to reclaim their families from the South. In recreating Mary Walker’s journey, To Free a Family gives voice to their hidden epic of emancipation and to an untold story of the Civil War era.